As I passed the local garda station in Cobh, I noticed the building was in complete darkness. From the quayside, it looked like nobody was home and for some reason I felt a little pang of sadness.
For those not familiar with Cobh, the garda station is adjacent to the railway station and behind the Heritage Centre if you know where that is. It’s a modern building, originally designed to roughly resemble the shape of a ship when viewed from the sea.
Back when it was built 20 or so years ago, it was heralded as a state-of-the-art facility. Minister of State for Rural Development at the time, Ned O’Keeffe, former TD for Cork East, described the location as being eminently suitable.
He also said: “The garda station in Cobh was extremely important when the town was the main emigrant centre and one of this country’s most important ports, which is why the station achieved the status of being a superintendent’s headquarters. It was a most influential place.”
He added: “Now, Cobh garda station, in common with all those situated along Ireland’s coasts, is assuming strategic importance once again - this time in the fight against drug smuggling.
"I am sure the new facility will be the ideal base for all the activities of a modern garda force.”
The building was to accommodate 40 personnel including a superintendent, an inspector, four sergeants and about 30 gardaí. It is catering for a smaller group now, having lost its status as a District Headquarters. The superintendent is long gone.
The strategic importance assigned to the garda station in Cobh by Ned O’Keeffe has been given less credence by those who came after him.
Mr O’Keeffe was right to be enthused by the location of the new station. It has an unobstructed view of the harbour with plenty of space for parking, but on the downside, it removed the gardaí from the centre of town.
The old garda station was located in Westbourne Place, a few doors up from the Commodore Hotel and across the road from The Promenade. It was a hub of activity and a prime location in the heart of Cobh.
The building was old and had become unsuitable from a policing perspective, but maybe a renovation project could have remedied that issue. In any event, it was vacated in favour of a new build.
There was always someone coming and going, and it was normal to see gardaí walking around the streets.
I reckon that’s how many of us who later joined An Garda Siochana first got interested in the job - from watching these guys in action on a daily basis. We knew them by name too - they were familiar to us.
Times have changed. It’s rare to see a garda on the beat anywhere these days, and Cobh is no different. The manpower isn’t there in the first place, and garda management has other priorities for the men and women in blue.
Yet, according to their website, An Garda Síochána is in and of the community and community policing is the key to and at the core of the ethos of the organisation.
Maybe the concept of community policing has changed dramatically since I retired, but in my experience, over 35 years, the essence of community policing was engagement. That meant being out and about and mixing with the community.
That doesn’t seem to be happening currently, but maybe we could turn it around.
The present garda station in Cobh is under-utilised and under-resourced and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change. It would make a perfect spot for a hotel.
It’s a quiet location with great views, buckets of room for parking, easy access to the railway station, and within walking distance of the town, and it seems the timing couldn’t be better.
According to a report in the Irish Examiner, a former bank on South Mall is to be converted into a hotel “the likes of which Cork has never seen”. It is one of five planned hotels in the city and county which between them will add over 700 beds.
Cork city is experiencing a hotel building boom, with a new €45m, 190-bed Premier Inn nearing completion on the former Moore’s Hotel site on Morrison’s Island.
On Camden Quay, across from the Opera House, work is well advanced on transforming another building into a 150-bed hotel, and the owners are planning to open a Moxy Hotel and Residence Inn on the site, the first Marriott-branded hotel in Cork city.
Planning permission was also granted for redevelopment of a property on South Terrace into a 103-bed ‘apart-hotel’, and a fifth project has plans for a 220-bed hotel and offices on the site of the former tax office on O’Sullivan’s Quay.
A recent Fáilte Ireland survey said hotel occupancy levels in Cork County reached 86% last June, at the height of the summer months, so how about this? Let’s take advantage of this boom and convert the present garda station in Cobh into a hotel. That would provide additional accommodation for visitors to the area and the proceeds of the sale could be used to purchase a suitable premises in the centre of town. A building that could be adapted to function as a police station with a reduced garda workforce.
It would also relocate the members of An Garda Siochana back among the people and may even inspire a return to community engagement.